In September, Ken Burns released his thorough documentary, Country Music. The 16-and-a-half-hour-long PBS series looks closely at the 100-plus-year history of the American art form. For Burns, whose films have exhaustively covered quintessentially American topics like the Brooklyn Bridge and Jazz, the task meant combing through thousands of photos and hundreds of hours of interviews. The work is staggering and came at the perfect time.
Country music has deep roots and a long tradition. Much of it is beautiful. Listening to Hank Williams or Loretta Lynn is divine, of course, but both America and the genre have changed significantly since the days of Merle Haggard. Today, country music has many influences beyond the prairie and the porch. Pop is infused in the music. So too is hip-hop. Furthermore, the people making the music look and live differently from many of the heroes depicted in the early days of Burns’ film.
You can’t talk about country music in 2019 (and beyond) without discussing Lil Nas X. The rapper-cowboy became infamous with his single, “Old Town Road” this year. The song stayed atop the charts for what seemed like the whole of 2019, and its composer seemed to affect anyone with an ear. For many, he’s a hero who crossed genres in a way that no one could have predicted in a billion years. To others, he’s an imposter, an outsider.
And that’s the point: country music is changing — it has always been changing — and its creators and appreciators should take stock of its evolution and think about that change, considering its consequences. How do you want country music to look and sound moving forward? If fans want diversity and as many voices in the fold as possible, they seem to be in luck. If they want to stay in the 20th century, they may not be.
Indeed, 2019 was a major year for country. With Lil Nas X, the world saw the shift. But others are helping to move country from near homogeneity to a diverse pastiche. This year, Lavender Country (fronted by Patrick Haggerty), the first-ever out gay country band, released their second record (the first was released in the 1970s). We also saw the masked (and gay-identifying) Orville Peck release his masterwork, Pony. We came to love the Highwomen (an all-women quartet), who released their debut record.
This year, we also saw many of our favorite country acts release new work: Willie Nelson and his somber Ride Me Back Home and Miranda Lambert and her sparkling Wildcard, for instance. Indeed, the entirety of our Best 10 Country Albums of 2019 list is filled with tremendous accomplishment. Each record should be listened to and cherished. But perhaps more than any album on the list, the thing we will look back on and remember about country music in 2019 is how much we got to see of its history and, too, its bright new future. – Jake Uitti
10. Midland — Let It Roll [Big Machine]
On their sophomore album, Midland, the trio from Dripping Springs, Texas, make a strong case for being the best little country band in the land. Their debut, 2017’s On the Rocks, was a Bellamys-style throwback, and Let It Roll doubles down on the great tunes, tough-edged playing, terrific harmonies, and a perfect blend of hard-hurting country earnestness and a winking sense of humor. Leave it to Midland to come up with the best Willie-allusion couplet ever, rhyming “You don’t have to wait on Nelson” with “If you want to raise some hell, son.” Elsewhere, the Midland manifesto is right in the song titles, as they pump out barroom country so sweet that “Every Song’s a Drinkin’ Song”, and trucker-craze-era sounds are shot through with enough contemporary flash to accurately label Midland as the great “21st Century Honky Tonk American Band”. – Steve Leftridge
9. Rodney Crowell — Texas [RC1]
More than 30 years after conquering country music with his Diamonds & Dirt album, Rodney Crowell has spent the 21st century largely away from the commercial spotlight, releasing one brilliant album after another. His latest, a rocking love song to his home state, Texas, is simply the latest in a long series of great records going back to 2000’s autobiographical The Houston Kid. Opening with a gritty rocker, “Flatland Hillbillies”, Texas doesn’t sound much at all like current hit-radio country and perhaps bears only an occasional resemblance to Diamonds & Dirt.
But Crowell has gathered an all-star cast of Texans – Lee Ann Womack, Ronnie Dunn, Lyle Lovett, ZZ Top’s Billy F. Gibbons, and the inevitable Willie Nelson among them – to join him in a series of typically excellent Crowell tunes that are frequently centered on Texas themes. Non-Texan Ringo Starr even shows up, drumsticks in hand, but the guest stars don’t distract from the proceedings and often add considerably to the fun. While much of Texas is quite simply just good fun, Crowell includes a few more somber moments, including “The Border” and “Brown & Root, Brown & Root”. These songs bring a bit of gravitas to the Texas party, but the album is a raucous Texas-sized party, nonetheless. – Rich Wilhelm
8. Orville Peck — Pony [Sub Pop]
Who is Orville Peck? Well, if you hunt around on the Internet, you’ll get a few rumors and the name of Toronto-based songwriter Daniel Pitout. But the crooning cowboy, who always keeps his face hidden behind a fringe mask, has never had his identity exposed. His personality remains, technically, a secret. But if you listen to his music, you can easily form your own opinions of the man. Peck’s songs are thoughtful, dreamy, noir (see: the epic “Dead of Night”). Yet, his presence is always somehow removed, even when he’s spilling his sonic soul. Peck’s 2019 debut record, Pony, is an achievement both for the artist and for country music. For Peck, it represents a dreamscape of reverb and mysterious storytelling rooted in tradition. And it has rocketed him to notoriety. For the genre, it represents a move in the right direction. Peck, who openly identifies as gay, represents a progressive voice in an industry that all-too-often is criticized for closed-minded behavior. If country music, which is as essential an American art form as any, is to move forward, it needs voices like Peck’s to continue to shine. – Jake Uitti
7. Tyler Childers — Country Squire [Hickman Holler]
For the “real country” faithful, Tyler Childers is the second-coming of catchier than hell dirt-road, Southern-twang shitkickery with enough Willie whine and Waylon thump to float a battalion of beard-and-bong Telecaster-snapping good old boys on a sea of dip spit. But as much as Tyler sounds like the good old stuff, there’s nothing quite like him past or present. The stellar songs pour out of him, delivered with a psychopath’s stare and a quivering vocal drawl poised on a razor’s edge.
The nine songs on Country Squire segue together with no spaces between, which agrees with the no-bullshit approach to the Kentucky tunesmith’s direct songwriting and relentless production of hooks. As lumped in as Childers is with other outlaw-come-lately saviors, Childers keeps his head down, rejects soul-scraping melisma and space-guitar freakouts, and sings the songs with all-your’n cinder-and-smoke authenticity. Listening to Country Squire is to travel paths both familiar and intoxicating, and it’s a damn good feeling to run these roads. – Steve Leftridge
6. Po’ Ramblin’ Boys — Toil Tears & Trouble [Rounder]
From the moment Bill Monroe stepped on the Grand Ole Opry stage in 1939, bluegrass has been an integral part of country music. In recent years, the parameters of bluegrass have expanded to include groups who bring jam-band expansiveness (Infamous Stringdusters) and Latin American influences (Che Apalache) to the music. Each of those bands released great albums this year, but if you’re looking a great contemporary take on traditional bluegrass, you’ll find it in
Toil, Tears & Trouble by the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys.
Winners of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s 2018 Emerging Artist of the Year Award, the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys have filled their Rounder Records debut album with songs that do indeed reflect toil, tears, and trouble. “Hickory, Walnut & Pine” is a tragic tale of the unintended consequences of progress, while “Ice on the Timber” is a heartbreaking story of family tragedy during an unforgiving winter. There are, of course, happier songs on
Toil, Tears & Trouble, including “Next Train South” and “Longing for the Ozarks”, which are both toe-tappers. Happy or sad, Po’ Ramblin’ Boys are on fire throughout Toil, Tears & Trouble, which has been nominated for a Grammy for best bluegrass album of 2019. – Rich Wilhelm
5. Mike and the Moonpies — Cheap Silver & Solid Country Gold [Prairie Rose]
Austin dancehall legends Mike and the Moonpies jump the pond to record at Abbey Road Studios backed by the London Symphony Orchestra for an eight-track set of stellar songs, strings, and steel. The ‘Pies mine the same country sounds of yesteryear that Midland does (“You Look Good in Neon”, especially). But they also sound right at home with Chris Stapleton-esque neo-outlawism on “Danger”, on the loungy “Young in Love”, which is closer to Johnny Mathis than it is to Johnny Paycheck, and on string-drenched countrypolitan beauties like “If You Want to Fool Around”. At 32 minutes, Cheap Silver is a tight set of tunes, but by incorporating an ocean of time and craft in these arrangements, Mark Harmeier and the boys polish up their solid country gold into a brilliant new luster. – Steve Leftridge
4. Tanya Tucker — While I’m Livin’ [Fantasy]
Co-producers Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings took inspiration from Rick Rubin’s 1990s-era reinvigoration of Johnny Cash as they prepped for Tanya Tucker’s comeback album, Tucker’s first album in ten years. That approach – no-frills arrangements that push Tucker’s voice upfront – finds the country legend reaching another career peak that even she wondered if she had in her. But the former teen star, now at 61, has lost none of her way of wrapping her voice around melodies, and the years have added depth to her tough, smoky voice.
Some of the songs, like her powerhouse reading of the Miranda Lambert hit “The House That Made Me”, prove that Tucker can add extra layers of heartache into a nostalgic ballad. But elsewhere, she flexes her hard-life outlaw persona as authentically as ever. The songs themselves are all winners, seven of which were were written by Carlile alongside her wingmen, the Hanseroth twins. Throughout the record, Tucker demonstrates how much Carlile has borrowed from Tucker’s timbre and phrasing. And despite the mortality tunes like “Bring My Flowers Now”, While I’m Livin’ showcases an artist, whom many had long ago written off, sounding as alive and vital as ever. – Steve Leftridge
3. Willie Nelson — Ride Me Back Home [Legacy Recordings]
Ride Me Back Home finds Willie Nelson looking at life, love, and mortality with grace, wisdom, and a certain bemused detachment. Nelson and producer Buddy Cannon co-wrote “Come on Time”, which finds Nelson challenging mortality with a jaunty tune that has a distinct “On the Road Again” feel; the sly “Seven Year Itch”; and the reflective “One More Song to Write”. Nelson also torches up one of his older tunes, “Stay Away From Lonely Places”, in a way that Sinatra would have appreciated. Nelson balances his originals with covers by Guy Clark, Billy Joel, and Mac Davis. God only knows why it took so long for Nelson to cover Davis’ “It’s Hard to Be Humble”, but waiting nearly 40 years to record it makes the joke even funnier. Ride Me Back Home confirms Willie Nelson’s status as a national treasure who still has something to say – through his songs and those of others — and a winning way of saying it. – Rich Wilhelm
2. Miranda Lambert — Wildcard [Vanner]
The country has changed since the early years of Hank Williams and the Carter Family. As a result, country music has changed, too. Today, we have stars like Miranda Lambert, who take the roots of the genre and add some modern flair. On her latest LP, Wildcard, Lambert employs pop and rock aesthetics woven together with her signature effervescence and vocal twang. While some songs resemble traditional cuts (“Holy Water”), much of Wildcard reads more like the 21st century than the 20th. “Locomotive” charges feverishly like a White Stripes song, and “White Trash” comports itself as coyly as a young Christina Aguilera. Indeed, Lambert can inhabit virtually any style, a versatility she proves on the 14-track Wildcard. But perhaps the most heartfelt moment on the album comes on its final song. On “Dark Bars”, Lambert is vulnerable, reflective, and heavy-hearted. However, Lambert decides to present herself on the new record’s tracks–whatever sonic clothes she wishes to wear–we always believe her. – Jake Uitti
1. The Highwomen — The Highwomen [Elektra]
If the essence of country music is to reflect contemporary times, both in the ways things change and the ways they stay the same, with three chords and the truth, then, by necessity, the genre must evolve to bring in new voices, talents, and stories. Enter the Highwomen, an all-women four-piece group that, with artistry in spades, wants to achieve one thing above any other: to bring more women to the forefront of country music. Comprised of Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby, and Amanda Shires, the supergroup released its eponymous debut LP in 2019 amidst great fanfare. The album shines with multi-part harmonies and jangly guitar rhythms, but it also centers the lives of women in its lyrics (“My name can’t be mama today!” rings one chorus). But as beautiful as the 12 songs can be, the band is just as powerful for the statement it makes socially. Listen to women, the members beseech of the masses, we are powerful. Of course, the band is correct. And, as a result, the Highwomen have the world watching. – Jake Uitti